Sunday, May 15, 2016

Message in a Bottle

I do not write because I have all the answers. I write because I have questions. I write because it is how I think.

More interestingly, sometimes the act of asking the question creates an answer, like a message in a bottle from the universe.

I recently used the the image at the left as a small promotion for my journaling prompts book. It seemed a good thought on a sad day for me. I felt the need for a little kindness.  

Last week, I had to deal with the impossible aunt. The one who imposes her views and her will on everyone. The one who invades your world with her world. The one who short-changes your accomplishments because they are obviously less than hers or her children's. The one who seems to view "family" more as a competition than a sanctuary. The one who has never quite understood that there truly is enough for everyone and grasps for every little scrap of attention*. The one who never moved beyond her small town thoughts and provincial attitude.

Normally, I don't. I simply do not any more. I've blocked her off my phone. I do not read her poorly written and maudlin e-mails (swipe and delete). There is zero value in our interactions. Everyone else allows her to be who she is - despite the stress and conflict she inflicts. I have never witnessed one of them - except my mother on occasion - contradict or disagree with her. Their choice. I used to buck the family system because I simply can not abide her attitude, which actually just created more conflict. Because of our current family situation, now I try (and sometimes fail) to be pleasant and say as little as possible when I see her. Unfortunately, due to La Gram Russe's illness, contact is necessary. 

Last week, during my weekly visit to La Gram Russe, she came over. Outside visitors stopped by for a brief few moments - she immediately drew attention to her attire over something no one would notice or frankly care about. (My thought was that perhaps she should really read the Rules and pay attention to the Olivia Joules portion: No one is thinking about you. They're thinking about themselves, just like you.) After they left, she then lectured La Gram Russe on speaking to guests in Russian and how uncomfortable it makes her. Why? It was her choice never learn the language in her 50+ years on the planet. (For the record, mine is not even passible but I understand more than she does.) And frankly, I'd think it a comfort to La Gram Russe to speak the language of her childhood and her dreams. Even I sometimes dream in Gregorian chant, and it was a much lesser part of my childhood. 

I was incensed. I was enraged at her condescending tone to La Gram Russe. I was furious with her continued focus on herself rather than what might bring comfort or joy to La Gram Russe. This interaction - as an "example" of her larger behavior - dragged to mind every other "evil" she'd ever done: her insistence that her version of history is correct despite being a proven horrific listener; her interruption of the singing of Happy Birthday to a 6 year old to bring the attention back on herself*; her explanation - after I'd been a focus group moderator to a major kitchen appliance maker for 5 years - to a stranger that I "sold Tupperware"; her removal of my flowers from La Gram Russe's 90th birthday table of gifts; her hurtful comment to the beloved niece during a time of struggle; the list is practically endless and span beyond me to what I've witnessed her doing to others in the family. It's a catalog. (And while I may be alone in my family in commenting on it - I am not alone in noticing it. Every single friend or companion I've ever brought to a family function has commented on how she treats her family, without my saying a word in advance. The funnier part to me is I'm 90% sure that much of this behavior is unconscious on her part as I've seen how kind and thoughtful she can be to strangers; she just apparently completely lacks any empathy or self-awareness in regards to family. It's almost as if she thinks "family" is a blanket excuse for any sort of behavior.)

Processing complex emotions is not always my best thing. I tend to marinate a bit. During this marination period, I was binge listening to a podcast  (CoQuora) and stumbled into an episode (#3). In part, the episode covered drama and how we create and participate in drama; about coming from a place of love to deal with people. This incident was very much top-of mind as I listened. And the truth is, I don't know how to deal with her from a place of love. I'm not at all sure what that might look like. I believe who you are is very much a choice, and she chooses to be insensitive, self-absorbed and unkind at nearly every family event or function. So far the best I've ever managed is 1) pity for the pathetic smallness of her interior world, 2) sympathy for the possible medical basis of her mental state, and 3) admiration for the her work, at which she excels.

And I realized that I created that particular image because kindness is what is needed in my life. Kindness to myself for my "inability" to forgive her. (Truth - some things are not forgivable and not everything that is said can be unsaid.) Kindness to her because she may not be capable of more and there may be complex reasons I do not know for her behavior. Kindness to the rest of our family for their choice to participate in her drama; it may support their family dynamic in some way I don't understand. Kindness because she is struggling with the pending loss of her mother and their relationship has roots I will never know. So this is now the question I'll try to remember to ask myself when we interact - how can I be kind today?

Will it be enough? I don't know. It's not my first attempt to try to find a way to cope within my family structure. (Opinion: La Gram Russe had no idea how to teach us to be family; she taught us to be strong instead.) But dealing from a place of love is certainly kinder and less judgmental than anything I've ever done. Recognizing that it's my choice to not engage in the drama is an empowerment that I've not had before. And so, I'll try to do what the universe's message in the bottle says.

Take-away: The strength is in the trying. Even when you fall down, get back up and keep trying. 

If you would like to explore some other questions with me, here are a few options.

*Not exaggerating. During one of the nieces' 6th birthday parties, she interrupted the singing of Happy Birthday to fuss about a 3 day old mosquito bite she'd received. The focus was not on her. So she changed it - despite the fact that the day clearly was not about her. I've seen her do the same at a funeral. 

Someone in my family - likely several people - will be unhappy that I've written this, despite the lack of names. To them.....What I write - here in my space - is your choice to read or not.   I have never downplayed a single one of your accomplishments; I've cheered and supported each of you, especially during times of life change. Remember, I will never Facebook/text you my humble brag pictures of my family; I will never mail/e-mail you a list of what my family has accomplished; I will never just start showing you pictures that you never asked to see about my life. Why? Because I honor your choice of how to interact with me. So far, most of you only interact when I initiate it, display zero curiosity or interest in my life, and know less about me than someone who Googles my name or any casual co-worker without an agenda or assumptions. That's fine. But if you choose to read this - it was your choice. I didn't ask or force you to. And I'm utterly entitled to my feelings and as well as to my opinion that you have chosen to participate in a very unhealthy dynamic. Your choice. My choice is to have boundaries. 

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